A parent of a typically growing child will almost always know what’s going on inside of their kiddo based on external signs including communication through the eyes, verbal language, and through common body language gestures. Most children always press their emotions to adults, in some manner, be it happiness, sadness, anger, stress, or hurt. By doing so, they are able to get some validation or help in order to proceed with their day. But what happens when the child is non-verbal AND has autism?
For families who live the spectrum experience, you are well-aware of the obstacles that come with autism alone. Adding the “non-verbal” piece exponentially complicates life for the child as well as their surrounding support system. Let’s take a look at how both being non-verbal AND having autism can affect children across the lifespan:
At this stage of life, children are uncontainable when it comes to their language development. Toddlers are constantly bombarding mommy or daddy with their newfound knowledge with short phrases such as, “Wanna go to store!”, “Brother’s mean.”, “No, no nap!”, “I got an ouchy!” or “I’m hungry”. The word combinations are endless and are roughly stitched together by the child to describe all of their wants and needs. For children who live with non-verbal autism, it almost seems like they haven’t even left infancy. Crying or yelling is the only source of communication that gets them immediate results like food, medicine, toys, blankets, or just loving attention.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN
When kids start attending school, they start to form relationships outside of their home, to learn basic academics (i.e. handwriting, math, English, etc.), and to understand socially appropriate behavior for their age group. Language ability heavily influences this part of life, including playing games, answering questions in class, presenting an assignment, telling parents about their day, and so on. Children with non-verbal autism lag behind before even stepping into a school. Reciprocal friendships with other children seem to be an impossible task resulting in delayed social growth compared with their peers.
In just a few years, elementary school children who are non-verbal age into middle school and high school. Teenagers take academics to a whole new level in preparation for college courses. Some are learning how to drive a car, taking on part-time jobs, and participating in afterschool sports. While their classmates excel, teens with non-verbal autism are most likely attending alternative programs that are still focusing on basic grammar structure.
The college years come and go…and in the case of adults with non-verbal autism may seem like the opportunity to attend is unattainable. This includes any chances of having a career, moving out, getting married, or having a family of their own. Parents are still concerned about whether or not their child can complete basic daily living tasks at home.
ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILD
For many years, there has been one underlying assumptions: that children with autism who are non-verbal have a very slim to non-existent chance of acquiring language skills. With the flood of research and the access to clinical resources, we find the opposite to be true. Back in 2013, AutismSpeaks reported on a study conducted by the Center for Autism and Related Disorders located in Baltimore. In short, the study concluded that non-verbal children with autism could acquire language skills past the age of 4 (from a sample of over 500 children). 1
Researchers from numerous foundations and centers for autism around the country emphasize the importance of parents or guardians seeking out early intervention services. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) regarding young children with autism, “improving speech and language skills is a realistic goal of treatment. Parents and caregivers can increase a child’s chance of reaching this goal by paying attention to his or her language development early on. Just as toddlers learn to crawl before they walk, children first develop pre-language skills before they begin to use words. These skills include using eye contact, gestures, body movements, imitation, and babbling and other vocalizations to help them communicate.” 2
For parents or guardians of young children with non-verbal autism, language acquisition is possible and could be life-changing! Advocate for your child and their learning potential by observing the details and seeking help early.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Given increasing recognition and the prevalence of non-verbal autism, realize that you are not alone. So many other parents and caregivers are trying their best at helping their children who struggle with communicating on a day-to-day basis. Like you, they are scared, tired, and overwhelmed. Stay proactive and explore every resource you can get your hands on. Remember that your child’s fate is not set and that latest research shows that they can learn language skills. You are at the forefront of your child’s care, and you are tasked with the opportunity to completely reshape their life for the better.